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US envoy to Israel: a hardliner on West Bank annexation?

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Jerusalem (AFP)

A fervent supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the US envoy to Israel has emerged as a central figure in the uncertainty surrounding Israel's annexation plans in the Palestinian territory.

Ambassador David Friedman has, according to some experts, encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to act swiftly on annexation -- even more swiftly than the White House wants.

Friedman, a 61-year-old lawyer, was an enthusiastic supporter of the US embassy's 2018 move to Jerusalem and has a long history of supporting West Bank settlements, communities considered illegal under international law.

Before being named ambassador in 2017, he worked with an organisation called the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which supports an illegal settlement outside the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Since taking up his post, Friedman has asserted Israel's "right" to annex West Bank territory.

Friedman also has a long-standing relationship with President Donald Trump, having represented Trump-linked companies in US bankruptcy proceedings.

The US president's controversial Middle East peace plan paves the way for Israel to annex roughly 30 percent of the West Bank as part of a larger package of proposals, including negotiations with the Palestinians on a future state.

- 'His own goals' -

The Palestinians have rejected negotiations on Trump's terms and some see Friedman as the main US voice pushing Israel to move forward unilaterally on annexations alone -- a move certain to cause international outrage.

"I think he is not representing exactly the US, but more his own opinion or goals," Nitzan Horowitz, an Israeli opposition lawmaker and head of the left-wing Meretz party, told AFP.

"He is pursuing a very obsessive agenda of annexation, which according to my knowledge and understanding, is not shared by most of his colleagues in Washington," Horowitz said, explaining that his information came from talks with multiple foreign and Israeli officials.

The US embassy declined to comment.

Netanyahu's centre-right coalition had set July 1 as the date it could begin acting on annexation under the terms detailed in Trump's plan.

When no implementation roadmap was announced on Israel's self-imposed kick-off date last week, speculation began circulating in Israeli media that US reticence about immediate action partly compelled Netanyahu to pull back.

Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu's envoy to Washington, told AFP that the US position on annexation is split between Friedman's view and that of senior White House advisor Jared Kushner.

Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a leading architect of the peace proposals, sees the plan as an "organic whole", added Oren, an expert on US-Israeli affairs.

For Kushner, if Israel acts unilaterally on annexation it risks alienating regional players whose support for the broader plan is essential, especially Arab states in the Gulf theoretically responsible for financially supporting a future Palestinian state.

- Showing 'movement' -

Oren, who said he knows Friedman "fairly well", agreed that the ambassador wanted action on annexation independent of progress on the rest of the Trump plan.

But he downplayed the notion Friedman was motivated purely by religious zeal or a personal desire to see so-called Jewish Law applied in West Bank areas some Israelis refer to by the biblical terms "Judea and Samaria".

"Yes, (Friedman) is pro-settlement, yes he is pro-annexation," Oren said, warning that people wrongly attribute to the ambassador a desire "to annex the entire West Bank".

Friedman's motivations are partly tactical, added Oren.

He believes "you have to show movement on the peace programme or it is going to die like every other peace programme" and that moving ahead with annexation would in effect put the Trump plan in motion.

Friedman's view is that if the Palestinians "leave the (negotiating) table they cannot go unpunished," added Oren, who also advised former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1994 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.

Evidence of a Friedman-Kushner split was on display within days after Trump's plan was unveiled at the White House in January.

The ambassador told reporters that night that Israel "does not have to wait at all" before annexing West Bank territory, comments publicly walked back by Kushner days later.

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